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March 18, 2011

New Books: Can We Save the Tiger?

Most parents are familiar with today’s earnestly conscientious children’s nonfiction that tries to teach young readers about environmentalism and conservation. Most of these titles, I'm sorry to say, are not so great: lecturing, often self-righteous, and—the worst sin of all for a children's book—dull. Some even take a propagandist, indoctrinating tone, which I find especially alarming in kids’ books even when I agree with the author's argument. (Still, they're mostly harmless, since they bore children stiff and quickly get buried in the farthest reaches of the bookshelf.)

But reading on these subjects for the younger set doesn't have to be limited to the classic allegories of The Lorax; there are a happy few standouts in the genre as well, such as Raymond Bial’s A Handful of Dirt and Dan Yaccarino’s The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau. Joining their ranks is a new picture book from author Martin Jenkins and artist Vicky White, Can We Save the Tiger? Jenkins avoids the high-handed tone of many books on animal extinction, and instead calmly and reasonably puts forward the facts for kids to examine for themselves.

First, he defines the term extinction itself, with references to some of the more famous vanished creatures—the dodo, the auk, the marsupial wolf—each rendered, as is every animal here, in White's stunning, meticulously detailed pencil and oil illustrations. Then Jenkins introduces many of today’s endangered species, leading with the always appealing tiger. (He clearly knows his audience.) In each case, he briefly runs through the situation that has put the animal in such dire circumstances—the fierceness and beauty of the tiger, as well as its need for wide spaces in the face of ever-encroaching human expansion; the introduction of a previously unknown predator to the habitat of the partula snail; and so on.

Perhaps best of all, Jenkins is surprisingly nonjudgmental, writing with understanding about the reasons why people have made decisions that have been so devastating to these animals. Which leads him to his key point: Because the endangerment of so many of these creatures is almost intrinsic to their very state of existence in the modern world, it will take a concerted effort from humanity to save them. Then, to drive home that such efforts are not lost causes, he turns to a success story—the comeback of the American bison—to show it can be done.

Somehow Jenkins accomplishes all of this in a handful of short, informative sentences that take up far less space on most pages than White's marvelous art does, and that are manageable for fairly young readers without being too juvenile for middle schoolers. And in his brief conclusion, he lets the forceful simplicity of his argument speak for itself:

“…Sometimes it might all seem to be too much, especially when there are so many other important things to worry about. But if we stop trying, the chances are that pretty soon we’ll end up with a world where there are no tigers or elephants, or sawfishes or whooping cranes, or albatrosses or ground iguanas. And I think that would be a shame, don’t you?”

[Images courtesy of Candlewick Press]

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